To those who protest that “no one will pay for a newspaper on the Web”, consider some very successful experiments in paid online content. The Wall Street Journal charges around US$100 (£63) a year for full access to its Website, and plenty of businesspeople pay for this. This is because the Journal provides the kind of news that is not plentiful; people pay for the quality of the business news and analysis that they can’t find elsewhere, as well as its timeliness.

The Economist charges US$95 (£59) a year for full access to its Website (though that it's US dollar-based pricing may show that it's just going after a foreign audience who can't easily and quickly get the print version. The New York Times has long charged for on-line access to its crossword puzzles. For $40 (£25) a year, subscribers have access to new puzzles and to archives (though print subscribers get access to the puzzles for free). Most of the British newspapers charge for their crossword puzzles as well. Again, this is unique content that does not have its equal elsewhere for free. Here in France, where I live, full access to the main newspapers’ Websites cost about €60, or £53, per year. Plenty of newspapers and magazines around the world have already ditched free.

The future of news

Apple’s tablet (and the copycats that will follow it) will be a game-changer, just as the iPod and iPhone have been. Because of Apple’s aura, this tablet will get more attention than the plethora of e-book readers we have seen recently. And I’m betting that Apple will get it right, as far as features, interface and usability are concerned. It will also be an excellent tool for reading the news. Newspapers and magazines will be able to package their content in multimedia bundles (either as apps or something similar to the iTunes LP) that will be designed for reading on a portable screen; this won’t simply be web pages viewed on a smaller screen.

The key to hardware being successful is the software that supports it. One of the main advantages to Apple’s tablet, as far as the press is concerned, is the iTunes Store. Since Apple already has this platform to sell and deliver that content, even on a subscription basis, readers will be able to easily buy their favorite newspapers and magazines and get them delivered instantly. They’ll be cheaper than the print versions, and they’ll be a lot greener too. And the iTunes Store will be able to provide a better selection than readers can find by going to individual Websites. Whether by subscription or by single issue, it’ll be extremely simple to buy newspapers and magazines to read on the Apple tablet.

This change won’t happen overnight. Apple’s tablet will probably be priced so that only the most tech-lusting among us will run out and buy version 1.0. But it will be a bellwether for the future of such devices and how they will change print media. New publishing experiments will be part of the attraction for this new device, and, in the near future, most major newspapers and magazines will offer tablet versions. And with them, a return to being able to provide the news we need.